For the final part of the ‘physical’ segment of The Wheel Of Wellness, I’ll be focusing on diet and the impact it can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. As part of this, I’ll be considering how the way we feel can impact our dietary choices and how what we eat and drink can directly affect both our mood and our energy levels.
What do we mean by the term ‘diet’?
Many people believe that the term diet refers to a specific eating plan where an individual eats less food because they want to lose weight / be thinner or only eats specific kinds of food e.g. those which are considered good for you, and cuts out bad or unhealthy foods. However, the simplest definition of diet is the food or drink which is typically eaten or drunk by a person or group of people. A diet can be incredibly healthy, extremely unhealthy or somewhere in-between the two. Personally, I prefer a happy medium where my diet is generally nutritious and balanced but still includes some treats and a moderate amount of alcohol. In fact, ‘moderation’ is very much a key word when it comes to a balanced diet.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet
There’s no shortage of information and guidance online about eating healthily to maintain good physical health but the most reliable place to look in the UK has to be the NHS website, specifically these pages and those found through the hyperlinks. Today, however, I’d like to focus on how what we eat and drink can have an impact on how we feel and also consider how making small changes to our diet can help us manage our mental health better by improving our mood, giving us more energy and helping us to think more clearly.
Mental health conditions, mood and our diet
How we feel can greatly influence what we choose to eat and drink. For example, if we’re struggling with anxiety, stress, depression or feeling down, our appetite can be affected and our daily routine might change, which could impact on our eating patterns. During periods of difficulty, some people won’t feel like preparing or eating food at all, whereas others will find comfort in doing so and may overeat or binge eat.
What we choose to eat or drink at different times has been shown to affect our mental functioning and can potentially worsen symptoms of conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and bipolar disorder. Eating too much of some foods and not enough of others can contribute to ongoing or worsening of our emotional state. Certain drinks, particularly if consumed to excess can also cause problems too.
Keeping a food and drink diary
I’ve previously written a post about keeping a food journal to help with diet and weight loss but recording what you eat and drink, how much you consume and when can also help you to notice the effect on your emotions particularly if you record how you feel afterwards. Over time you might work out which foods and drinks make you feel good or better and which make you feel worse. You might also learn which keep you awake, help you sleep or give you gut problems. If you do make improvements to your diet, you can also measure your progress over time.
Some tips for making positive changes to your diet to improve your mood
As well as using a food and drink diary to find out what helps or worsens your mood, the following tips can be really useful if you want to improve your diet with a view to being more healthy and regulating your emotional state.
Even if you don’t feel like it or you’re really busy, it’s important to try to make sure you eat regularly. If your blood sugar drops it can make you feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly throughout the day and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.
Try to avoid food and drinks which cause your blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks and alcohol and instead, go for complex carbohydrates and protein rich foods. Also, make sure you don’t miss meals. Eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start, particularly if you choose wholegrain cereal, protein rich eggs or low fat yogurt and fruit such as berries, apple or fresh mango. If you’re struggling with lack of appetite, try eating smaller portions of food spaced out more regularly throughout the day.
The most vital substance for a healthy body and mind is water. If you don’t drink enough during the day, you will likely find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also suffer from headaches, fatigue or constipation which are not great for your mood either.
It’s recommended that you drink at least eight glasses of fluid a day and this can include tea, juices and squash and smoothies. Coffee can also count towards your daily intake, but you should also be wary of the effects of too much caffeine.
Managing caffeine consumption
Caffeine is a natural stimulant which gives you a quick burst of energy and can make you feel more mentally alert and attentive. On the other hand, it can also cause you to feel anxious, depressed, nervous, restless or irritable. It can also give some people an upset stomach if they have too much or prevent much needed sleep, especially if you consume it before bed.
Caffeine is found in a range of beverages including coffee, tea, cola, some chocolate drinks and a range of manufactured energy drinks. Also, despite its name, decaffeinated coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine. If you regularly drink a lot of the above each day, there’s a very good chance you will become dependent on them and display withdrawal symptoms if you cut down a lot or stop consuming caffeine altogether.
Although many people enjoy caffeinated drinks, there are quite a few benefits of reducing your intake. These include:
- better gut health
- fewer headaches
- easing of anxiety and panic
- better quality sleep
- improved skin tone, less signs of aging
- lower blood pressure
- healthier and whiter teeth
- better able to naturally regulate your energy levels
Remember though, that suddenly stopping caffeine isn’t a good idea as this can result in short term symptoms of withdrawal. It’s best to cut down slowly if you want to experience the above benefits.
Managing alcohol consumption
Regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week is known to cause problems relating to your physical health making you at greater risk of a variety of cancers, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, gastric issues, liver damage and memory loss. Consumption of alcohol can also negatively impact on your mental health, but, despite this, many people turn to excessive drinking during periods of difficulty and/or mental illness.
Alcohol is known to have a depressant effect which can lead to fluctuations in mood and signs of deteriorating mental health. It is also associated with disrupted sleep which can result in poor energy levels, and worsening fatigue or exhaustion.
Avoiding alcohol altogether at times of difficulty would be the most beneficial, but even cutting down can significantly help with mood.
Finding time to eat well can often be quite difficult, particularly if you’re struggling with one or more aspects of your mental health. Planning ahead when you’re feeling well and enjoying preparing and eating food can help. This can include batch cooking and storing healthy and nutritious meals in the freezer for times when you can’t face cooking. Creating a list of quick and easy meals to refer to can also be useful when you are struggling for ideas.
If you think you would benefit from making some changes to your diet to improve your physical and mental health it’s best to start slowly and take small steps towards where you want to be. Changing your whole diet suddenly is likely to leave you feeling overwhelmed and can cause you to go back to the bad habits that you are used to. Making one change at a time can also help you measure the effect on your mood and your general wellbeing.
We can often put a lot of pressure on ourself to eat a healthy diet but it’s important to enjoy the food and drinks you consume and not be too hard on yourself. Try to recognise any achievements large or small, and give yourself credit and praise for any improvements made. Also, remember that other factors can help your mental health and emotional state as well including getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine, doing some physical activity each day and getting a good quality sleep.
I hope you’ve found today’s blog post helpful and it’s given you some ideas on how to make small improvements to your diet. If you think that you need to make some dramatic changes to your food and drink consumption, it’s best to seek help from a professional. The first step would be to see your GP who can make some suggestions or refer you to a dietician. A specialist can then help you identify specific issues with your diet or identify or manage any eating disorders or food intolerances you may have.